Saturday 21 January 2017

Ireland find gold at end of rainbow

Walters double banishes nerves to secure precious ticket to France

Published 17/11/2015 | 02:30

The noise soared up out of the silver bowl, climbing skyward as rich in irony as exultation.

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"We're all part of Jackie's Army," it ran, a throwback chant to days when we had a team accustomed to big stages and the clinging presumption of their people. Martin O'Neill doesn't have call on that calibre of footballer now but, on this riotous night by the Dodder, they did make a statement about how simple virtues like courage and integrity can carry a group far.

And there was something beautifully emblematic in Jonathan Walters delivering the goals that carried them to next summer's festival in France.

As a footballer, he is unpretentious as a dump-truck. But Walters plays the game with such fury and wisdom and uncontainable resolve, he would be precious in any dressing room. He is a reminder that, for all its dangerous vanities, professional football still houses authentic men.

Because Walters and Ireland were terrific here.

True, they don't makes things easy on us or themselves, mining improbable escape from a group in which just two from a possible twelve points were taken from the games against Poland and Scotland. Essentially, survival was secured from those two dramatic games with Germany. Who would have thought it?

A team that only gets itself up for the world champions?

To begin with last night, tension enveloped everything like a damp fog. The difficulty is there can be no right or wrong way to play these games. Without the cushion of a lead, there is no clarity. The comfort of an away goal becomes a dangerous thing because trying to defend it over ninety minutes would be tantamount to idiocy.

Concern

So you've got to play, you've got to commit to passing the ball, to activating concern in your opponent. What is the alternative? Re-enacting Custer at Little Bighorn?

There was, then, an uneven, slightly spooked cadence to the evening. Worry ran like a vitamin deficiency through both teams, passing a little hurried, defending often slapdash, everything played out to the banshee soundtrack of audience inclined to shriek.

And, as ever, the prize for correctly guessing O'Neill's team selection went unclaimed in the media room. The selection of Robbie Brady at left-back against a team armed most venomously down its right flank seemed vaguely typical of an eccentric mind just programmed to confound.

Then again, Walters's return was, we assumed, likely to provide Brady with the kind of protection the former St Kevin's boy palpably struggled to give Stephen Ward in the pea-souper of Zenica.

Conundrum solved?

Nope, Walters actually started down the right with Jeff Hendrick the one delegated to play bouncer down the left. Then again, nothing gets written in stone with O'Neill. The team structure looked flexible from the off, both wide men empowered to interchange whenever opportunity arose.

Ireland looked by far the more coherent in those early flurries, a wonderful ninth-minute move almost getting Walters in after James McCarthy brilliantly won possession in his own half. Begovic saved well with his feet but, on fifteen minutes, Brady almost got Daryl Murphy in after a sublime one-two with Wes Hoolahan, all the early vitality being shown by the team in green.

There was no sense then of the vitality Bosnia's circumstance might have promised. Instead just collective neurosis almost. They were guarded in almost everything they did, seemingly paralysed by the implications of falling behind.

It meant their captain, Edin Dzeko, cutting a largely solitary figure in attack.

There was the air of something brewing then and it duly arrived with Walters's perfect 22nd-minute penalty after what looked quite a harsh hand-ball decision against Bosnian left-back, Zukanovic.

Of course, the peculiar thing here was that the goal did not alter anything too profound. Bosnia's minimum imperative had always been the scoring of a goal. That hadn't changed.

Trouble was, their discipline looked to be unraveling. Spahic and Lulic were already in Mr Kuipers's book, panic beginning to write itself into the collective nervous system.

Dzeko was the classy exception. He has the elegance of a great marsh-bird, languid for long spells, yet capable of swooping with sudden and murderous velocity. Within three minutes of Walters's goal, he knifed a low shot into Darren Randolph's side-netting from what had looked an un-threatening position.

He alone was offering Ireland reasons for misgiving.

His clever knock-down almost got Medunjanin in, but the finish proved high and lurid. Yet, seconds later, Hoolahan almost humiliated the nervy Begovic with a block on the goalkeeper's delayed clearance. The Bosnians looked close to meltdown with Spahic and Kolasinac especially testing Kuipers's patience with their histrionics.

Still, Ireland were desperate to get them in the chokehold of a two-goal deficit.

Their ability to squeeze the Bosnian space, to force a hurried pass, to work errors from their opponents had the stadium positively thrumming with the thrill of a home team playing with such thrilling intensity.

But the half-time introduction of Besic changed things. Suddenly, there was a faint melody to the Bosnian game. They resumed with a period of possession dominance, three men in white now manning central midfield.

Visca almost got Lulic in with a cross and O'Neill, sensing the evening tilt a little, instantly responded with the double substitution of James McClean and Shane Long for Hoolahan and Murphy. That recalibrated the midfield numbers game, but there was something clammy about Ireland's movement now.

Pjanic had a chance from a Medunjanin free-kick, Ireland's press defence spooking him just in time.

fragile

But there was the stirring of real life in our opponents now, like the clank of water in a central heating pipe. All of the positive energy had been Ireland's, but this tie was still on a knife-edge. A single goal lead just kept nerves fragile as tissue paper.

Mercifully, that second arrived and - truth to tell - it carried a whiff of justice. Spahic probably should have seen red for a 69th-minute boot into Walters's midriff, but Brady's sublime free-kick found the Stoke man who beat Begovic magnificently at his near post.

Ibisevic did rattle Randolph's crossbar in injury-time but, by then, the party was clearing its lungs.

At Mr Kuipers' final whistle, O'Neill and Roy Keane met in a long embrace, the Corkman visibly emotional at what had been achieved.

It has been awkward at times, but they got there. An honest group now heading to the sun.

Irish Independent

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